Yeah, The Proclaimers did that song from Benny & Joon. Everybody knows at least two lines. There’s the chorus–“I would walk 500 miles”–and “If I haver.” The latter stuck only with Americans, who puzzled over the funny Scottish word and its definition that, incidentally, is ‘to babble nonsensically.’ That’s the one Proclaimers song everyone knows, because it was in a movie five years after its initial release, and it’s all most people care to know about them.
It was like this even in 1993 when twin brothers Craig and Charlie Reid, the bespectacled Scottish Buddy Hollies that are The Proclaimers, had their lone American hit. Sunshine on Leith, the record containing “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” came out in 1988. While “I’m Gonna Be” hit No. 11 in the U.K., and “Letter from America” (from the previous album This Is the Story) hit No. 3 there, the United States was largely unaware of the band until Benny & Joon. I was lucky enough to know one American named Holly who owned Sunshine on Leith.
We worked together at a medical clinic in Sugarhouse, filing lab results and dictating notes in patients’ charts. The office compromise for music was a Top 40 station—meaning we heard “I’m Gonna Be” three to four times per shift. More than once, she complained how this song was going to make The Proclaimers a one-hit wonder, ensuring few people would know the charms of Sunshine on Leith, which she delineated for me. On her recommendation, I purchased a cassette copy of the album and took it on a morning drive.
It was summer, and the sky was an azure pasture in which scant gleaming white clouds lazily grazed—Leith’s cover shows the Reid brothers gazing at a similar sky. The sunny hit song came first, and playing it on purpose was much different from involuntary radio listens; its devotional theme regained its innocence. Despite Holly’s description, I expected more cute songs about love. Although I’d certainly get those, and “Then I Met You” and “Sean” would impossibly match the joy and verve of “I’m Gonna Be,” The Proclaimers weren’t lovesick, one-note chumps. The second track, “Cap In Hand,” though certainly poppy, was a Billy Bragg-ish protest against England’s dominion over the Reids’ homeland, and “What Do You Do” was likewise political: “What do you do when democracy fails you?” There’s also a spot-on cover of Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues” and the Reid’s idea of a honky-tonk drunk-and-lonely tune, “It’s Saturday Night.”
When the Proclaimers came to Salt Lake City for a show at DV8, Holly and I were part of a crowd that, when we didn’t sing along like drunks in a pub, listened in silence to a band that held us in the palm of their hand. With a brogue so heavy it doesn’t disappear in song, as accents typically do (see Freddie Mercury, Nicolai Dunger, Elvis Costello), plus an endearingly boyish punk sincerity, The Proclaimers had an “it” factor to complement their masterful songwriting. They weren’t mere one-hit wonders—except that, in America’s fickle pop-culture consciousness, they are. One song is often plenty for most Americans. And although The Proclaimers would have minor aftershocks with “Let’s Get Married” (from 1994’s Hit the Highway), land more songs in films (Dumb and Dumber, Shrek, Bottle Rocket, Mama’s Boy), and continue making records—six since Leith, including the latest Notes & Rhymes, they would never top the success of “I’m Gonna Be.”
Unless, that is, success is measured by the devotion of a band’s fans. At South by Southwest this past March, The Proclaimers played at least four shows to promote the thenupcoming Notes. One of the gigs, in a large theater in the Austin Convention Center at 2:00 in the afternoon, drew 400 people, a pretty decent turnout for that venue. Fifteen years after the DV8 show, Craig and Charlie Reid hadn’t lost a step. The SXSW audience, which usually has more than its share of talkers and scene-makers, was rapt as the band played a short set that, of course, favored Leith tunes and included “I’m Gonna Be.”
Later Craig would tell me, “everything we’ve done [since Leith] has been an extension of that,” not because it was their greatest success, but because it gave the Proclaimers a career. So The Proclaimers keep making new music, regardless of whether they’ll be successful in the States or if their new stuff will be as successful as Sunshine on Leith. They embrace the album, which inspired a UK musical, and “I’m Gonna Be,” which has become an unofficial Scottish anthem. “What we get out of it is the kind of kick [he pronounces it ‘keck’] of knowin’ that you’re doing what you’ve always wanted to do, and you get paid for it… It doesn’t matter how many records you sell, or how many people think you’re great or how many think you’re shit. It’s just a matter of the keck.”